If you’re a fan of Vini, the wonderful (and squeezy) Italian wine bar in Surry Hills, then you should be excited about Berta. This new joint is also run by Andrew Cibej (who, aside from starting Vini and masterminding Berta, also has a bar-plus-wine-shop scribbled down on his 2010 to-do list).
Berta is located on Alberta Street, a no-name laneway that is definitely going to inspire some “are we in the right place?” doubt as you walk up, in search for the right door. After passing all the anonymous office exits, there’s a nice sense of discovery as you find the low-key entranceway – you feel like you’ve been let in on a great secret – and walk through to the restaurant’s edgy-but-intimate interior.
For a place that’s only been open since Wednesday and is on an uneventful street with zero traffic, Berta is a-buzz with people. It takes little brainpower to work out why – it’s an excellent Italian joint right in the city, one that you’ll want to keep revisiting – and it makes you wonder how much elbow room will be left when it eventually gets the bigger profile it deserves.
Unlike Vini, which is centred around course-sized servings, Berta focuses on food for sharing, and the blackboard cryptically lists just the key ingredients of each dish and leaves it at that. For instance: Cuttlefish Zucchini Preserved Lemon, Fennel Jerusalem Artichoke Parmesan, Prawns Capers Chilli, and so on. I like the mystery this inspires, like being played a few chords of a song and being made to guess how the rest of the track might turn out.
So the Cauliflower Chickpeas and Carraway ($12) is, despite sounding like a well-behaved combination of veg and spice, a very inviting and fun dish. The deep-fried puffs have a playful resemblence to popcorn, the cauliflower has a caramelised sweetness, but my favourite part is the inspired sprinkling of salted, deep-fried flecks of rosemary – crunchy, savoury and more-ish, to the point I’m clean-sweeping the plate to make sure I’ve eaten up every last crisp sprig.
The Lentils Leek Chicory ($12) is far from the legumey mush that can give lentils a bad name – in fact, it’s a comforting, flavoursome dish, with a hint of sweet leeks and a surprising aniseedy note. It makes you grateful for winter.
Another dish that evokes that feeling is the Polenta Mushrooms Taleggio ($18). Stirred through the pot are specks of sage and sprigs of thyme, a rectangle of cheese that has been melted into the white polenta and, crucially, a lovely tangle of sauteed pine mushrooms – extra-brown from the pan and correspondingly rich in flavour.
The Lamb Rump White Beans Salsa ($29) is played out like this: the lamb slices are fanned over a sweet puree of beans, and topped with a lemony herb salsa. Will is pretty happy with it, to the point of reconsidering the need for dessert.
Of course though, the idea of skipping this course is outright rejected by me and my pro-sweet-tooth agenda, and we end up splitting three scoops of Buffalo Milk with Bay Leaf Gelato, an excellent dessert that’s bracing yet understated (contradictory as that sounds). I like its have-it-both-ways effect; the bay leaf gives the clean creaminess an unlikely punch, and the garnish of charred rosemary sprigs adds a touch of salt and texture.
The great menu is the handiwork of Berta’s head chef O Tama Carey, who previously ran a series of pop-up dinners at Vini and also made her name at Billy Kwong. There’s also a fine-tuned list of wines, all sourced from Italy. And, despite the fancy bar and industrial/contemporary fittings, my favourite part of the room is the massive window that looks onto the uneventful alleyway, with nothing more than a blank brick wall just to stare at. There’s something about it that just sparks your imagination – just like Berta.
Berta, 17-19 Alberta Street, Sydney NSW (02) 9264 6133